Third Paradigm is an out-of-the-box thinktank on community sovereignty and regenerative economics.
We look at how to take back our cities, farmland and water; our money, production and trade; our media, education and culture, our religion and even our God.
We present a people's history of the Bible and a parent's view on how to raise giving kids in a taking world.
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Welcome to the fifteenth episode of Third Paradigm titled The Man Who Brought God to Guantanamo. For several months, the book Enemy Combatant by Moazzam Begg sat on my bookshelf. Every time I looked at it, I thought, "I really should read that." But I was afraid, afraid of facing the graphic details of the horror and how it would haunt me, afraid that I wouldn't be able to go through the motions of my life once I started. Still, I believe that if you don't have to live it, the least that you can do is be a witness. When I finally worked up the courage to open the first page, I found that I couldn't put it down. It wasn't from morbid fascination with abusive power, but from seeing a strength and resilience in humanity that I hadn't imagined. It was like finally reaching Dante's innermost circle of hell, and finding that God is waiting there. In our feature, I'll talk about why, for me, Moazzam Begg is the Man Who Brought God to Guantanamo, or rather, who brought me to where I could see God in Guantanamo. We'll also hear from another author, a long-ago prisoner of Hitler's camps, who gives a startling witness to God in Buchenwald.
[Moazzam Begg – On Detainment, Torture, and Civil Liberties - Show 1 of 5]
But first, we'll read excerpts of Poems from Guantanamo, subtitled The Detainees Speak. It's edited by Marc Falkoff, one of the lawyers defending the detainees. In his preface, he described how, in the camps, poetry has become a means of sanity and survival, as essential as water. When there was no paper, poems were scratched with a fingernail on Styrofoam cups, to be collected and trashed each night. Even when pencils and paper became available, few of the poems have seen the declassified light of day. Although it seems like the ephemeral nature of this writing would be discouraging, the act of composing poems has been the only thing not felt as futile. The poets range from professional journalists to truck drivers to teenage boys, who never thought of themselves as poets. Maybe our English teachers were wrong about the way to motivate young authors. Perhaps poetry is essentially an act of honesty, and we, living in our boob tube, sit-com bubbles, want shows like 24 and Lost to tell us that torture's okay as long as it's the good guys are doing it. The last thing we want is honesty.
[Vanessa Redgrave – Poems from Guantanamo]
Next we'll listen to O Freedom by Billie Bragg. 'O Freedom, what liberties are taken in thy name.' Bragg's use of the Biblical 'thy' is fitting. Every regime that employs torture is backed by a doctrine of their own moral superiority that sanctions it – to sanction is to sanctify, to make holy. It's the soul that dies first, and poetry, as a way back to honesty, is a way to reclaim our souls.
[Billy Bragg – O Freedom]
There's an extraordinary essay about the power of poetry in another concentration camp. It's called Poetry in Buchenwald, and the author is Jacques Lusseyran, the blind leader of the French youth resistance. At 17, Lusseyran led an army of young people who published and delivered news about the Allies, keeping 1500 phone numbers in his head to avoid having anything incriminating on paper. When he was 19, they were betrayed to the Gestapo. He was arrested, interrogated 38 times, and after 18 months, was sent to Buchenwald. I think often of his advice to reconstruct the arguments of Kant on the eve of torture. It won't help, he says, but it's rigorous work that will pass the time. He writes, however, not about horror but about joy, and how to find it even in the most wretched of circumstances. He describes a fellow inmate waking him, and eagerly reciting this phrase of Apollinaire:
This snatch of poetry spoke to their experience and spread throughout the camp. Some months later, in the midst of a conversation, Lusseyran recited some random verses by Baudelaire. Prisoners gathered around him and spontaneously began to repeat each line, fifty voices echoing his. Later, he learns that they are "Ungar" – Hungarians waiting for what the SS called "transfer to the sky." They knew no French, but learned to recite whole stanzas of The Death of the Lovers.
Recognizing that he was on to something important, Lusseyran threw himself into a campaign of poetry. He mobilized every person to tap into whatever bits of verse and music they knew. With his prodigious memory from being blind, he became a repository and would recite at midday what he'd pieced together. Not every poet made the cut. The whiny and self-indulgent were rejected, but Victor Hugo triumphed. "This devil of a man," he writes, "entered our lives and mingled with us the moment a word of his was spoken." Baudelaire could find "at the bottom of the darkest holes a little glimmer of light and [make] it burst before our eyes." He writes, "I learned that poetry is an act, an incantation, a kiss of peace, a medicine, neither more nor less. I learned that poetry is one of the rare, very rare things in the world which can prevail over cold and hatred. No one had taught me this."
A Jacques Lusseyran of our age is Moazzam Begg, author of Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar. Begg was born in Birmingham to middle-class British Muslims. But all his life, he was drawn to defend those who were victimized. His weapons, like Lusseyran's, were truth, understanding, and words. He opened a bookshop that translated ancient Arabic texts, held forums for discussion, and sold educational materials and craftworks. He used his profits to send books, clothes, and honey to Pakistan. He drove a convoy of humanitarian aid to Bosnians during the genocide. He opened a girl's school in Afghanistan and paid to build 10 wells in Kabul. On 9/11, he was in Kabul. The population there assumed that the US would only attack Bin Laden's camps in Kandahar. They were wrong.
When the US attacked Kabul, he was away from his wife and children. For two days, he trekked through bandit-filled mountains, fasting for Ramadan, blaming himself for bringing them into the very dangers he was trying to save others from. Once in Pakistan, he worked through aid organizations and got money from friends and family in England to hired search parties, but no one was hopeful. After three grueling weeks, they were united in Islamabad and were miraculously happy. They found they had a new baby on the way, the children were in school, and he made a new home. Although his father urged him to come back to Birmingham, Moazzam wanted to help the other refugee families who had helped him. Two months later, he was abducted at midnight and imprisoned for the next three years. The only evidence were his emails on sending honey to Pakistan, which was interpreted as a code word for explosives.
I urge everyone to read Enemy Combatant for the details, which I can't convey in a paragraph. Moazzam's stories are of kindness and humanity breaking through the darkness of brutality and ignorance. He's predisposed to see the good in everyone, and each guard and inmate is an individual to whom he relates. Woven into his account are conversations about philosophy – not of the anemic, academic variety, but like Lusseyran's poetry, the essential questions, the lifeblood of the soul. Each morning the detainees have a ritual, in which each one within their cell greets every other detainee by name. He finds that even through his years of solitary confinement, they had remembered him.
In one debate over Bin Laden, he and another prisoner argue the Islamic law to never target a place where there are women and children, or uninvolved civilians. The other Muslim points out the Marine anthem about the shores of Tripoli that brags about a US naval raid on Libya. He says the establishment of a Jewish state in the Occupied Territories could only happen with US support. He cites the genocide of Muslims in Libya, Iraq, Somalia, and how attacks, sanctions, and trade embargoes have caused the deaths of 5000 Iraqi children each month. US citizens, he states, elect their leaders and their foreign policies. The 9/11 targets were the military, executive, and economic arms of this indiscriminate violence, not innocent civilians, but people who had the ability to know.
Against this argument, Moazzam Begg lays out the Prophet's rules for military engagement, which clearly outlaw targeting women, children, old men, priests, civilians, and even trees. They forbid torture, mutilation, and death by fire, and they free prisoners of war if they can teach Muslims to read. It made me realize that the Islam we see in the media is a reactionary extremism, created by our utter immorality. No matter who's right in their debate, the US is wrong. While others are risking their lives and freedom for what they believe in, we only believe in what might make us money.
This has been Tereza Coraggio with Third Paradigm. Thanks to Skidmark Bob for music, production, and lending his voice to Guantanamo detainees. Our closing song is Empty Walls from Serj Tankian.
[Serj Tankian – These Empty Walls]
Thank you for listening.